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In Japan spent fuel from nuclear power plants is stored as fuel rods or reprocessed and made into vitrified waste and then stored (Although nearly 40 years have passed since commercial nuclear power generation started in Japan, waste generated from fuel, i.e., fission products and vitrified waste, is still being stored but not disposed). In 1987, the 7th Long-term Program for Research, Development and Utilization of Nuclear Energy announced its policy for high-level radioactive waste disposal: “The fundamental policy is to solidify high-level radioactive waste into a stable form and store it for 30-50 years for cooling, and then dispose of it in deep stratum”. Along with this policy, “The Specified Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act” was promulgated in 2000 (the Act calls for the establishment of an implementing body responsible for disposal, funding arrangements to cover the costs of disposal and a site selection process). The body specified under the Act, NUMO (the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan) was established in 2000. The diagram below shows NUMO’s various roles. NUMO has already started operating and aims to begin geological disposal of vitrified waste (approximately 40,000 containers) at depths greater than 300m below surface between 2033 and 2037.
Fig.1 The Role of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) (Made from NUMO’s pamphlet “Safe Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste”)
In contemporary society, it is a general rule that companies are responsible for waste generated by their production activities. This rule does not apply to nuclear power generation. As nuclear power generation was promoted as a national policy, the government has a big role in the disposal of nuclear waste as the diagram above shows. Power companies have no responsibility in regards to vitrified waste after they hand it over to NUMO, as long as they provide funding for the cost of disposal. The cost of deep geological disposal is estimated to be 3,000,000,000,000 yen; the cost for single container of vitrified waste is approximately 35,000,000 yen. By March 2006 approximately 356,500,000,000 yen had already been set aside for this purpose. About. 40,000 containers of vitrified waste will be produced by 2020. Assuming that the cost per container of vitrified waste is the same as it is today, the cost of 40,000 containers will be 1,400,000,000,000 yen (35,000,000 yen x 40,000 = 1,400,000,000,000 yen)(1.4 trillion yen). Waste disposal is planned to commence in the 2030s. The money that has been set aside needs to be managed carefully and properly invested in order for it to be able to cover the total cost of disposal by 2030. The amount of funds needed is 1,400,000,000,000 yen. This should be compared with the cost of disposal ,which is 3,000,000,000,000 yen. The money that will be set aside will need to be invested well for it to grow from 1,400,000,000,000 yen (1.4 trillion) to 3,000,000,000,000 yen (3 trillion yen). If this cannot be achieved budget per single canister of vitrified waste needs to be increased (the unit price is reviewed every year). However, it is difficult to estimate the cost of such a long-term project; thus, it is also difficult to arrange an appropriate budget. As shown in the diagram above, the government decides the size of the waste disposal fund’s budget; therefore, if funds fall short of disposal costs, it is likely that the government will take responsibility (which would mean an injection of tax tax payers money). Implementation of the final disposal plan will have to weigh safety against cost; it is questionable whether the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is the right agency for taking charge of the cost of final disposal while securing safety.
In December 2002, to initiate the first stage in selecting a final disposal site, NUMO started calling for municipalities throughout Japan to volunteer as candidate areas so as to explore the feasibility of constructing a final repository for high-level radioactive waste. NUMO received no application from any municipalities until Toyo Town in Kochi prefecture applied on January 25, 2007. However, Toyo town withdrew its application on April 23, 2007.
There are two major problems in NUMO’s site selection process. First, if NUMO receives no applications from any municipalities, they will never be able to construct a final repository. Secondly, they do not select an area based on geological survey, they decide after receiving applications from volunteer areas and then judge the volunteer areas’ geological suitability as a nuclear waste repository. With this approach, if NUMO only receives one application, there is a possibility that they will construct a final repository in an area where the stratum is not suitable for such a repository.
A geological disposal site is, so to speak, a ‘dump’ for high-level radioactive waste. It is not the kind of facility local governments typically wish to endorse. The only motive they would have for such an application would be in order to obtain a large subsidy from the government. The pamphlet issued by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry states “Final disposal is a long-term project spanning more than a century. It is important for the relationship between the implementer of the waste disposal project and the municipality that has accepted the project to grow and develop together over time. It is vital that the final disposal project be integrated into the municipality and with community needs so as to ensure that the project delivers maximum benefit to all local communities. Right from the the initial literature surveys on the feasibility of constructing a final disposal facility, the Japanese government will support candidate areas in pursuing coexistence by enhancing the joint benefits of the long-term project development with the National Power Utilities Subsidy Program”.
|Bodies for subsidy||※ Municipalities of the disposal site
※ Neighboring municipalities of disposal site
※ Prefecture of disposal site
|※ Municipalities of the disposal site
※ Neighboring municipalities of disposal site
※ Prefecture of disposal site
|Activities eligible for grant||
※ Activities to promote understanding
※ Activities to promote understanding
|Annual grant limit||210 million yen||2000 million yen
(Grant limit for the period: 7000 million yen)
The government’s approach to finding candidate areas for a final disposal site is basically the same as for nuclear power plant sites; the government provides candidate areas subsidies as rewards for accepting troublesome facilities. It has been shown that subsidies for constructing nuclear power plants are not helpful in regenerating regions in the long run. (Refer to: How Nuclear Power is Promoted and Is Nuclear Power Economic?)
According to NUMO, candidate areas for a final disposal project “should not be forced to accept it” but “be volunteered”. The law stipulates that NUMO must respect the opinions of local governors and the mayors of municipalities however it only suggests that NUMO should seek the understanding and cooperation of residents. Hence there is a cause for concern as the disposal site can be selected without the residents’ consensus. Residents of areas that have research facilities for geological disposal, residents of Rokkasho where vitrified waste is currently stored, and residents of sites for intermediate storage are all worried that the current facilities would be turned into final disposal facilities.
The fact that NUMO has received no application from any municipality means that no municipality wants to accept the vitrified waste that is generated as a result of consumption of electricity in Japan. What do you think about this situation? The following are some opinions on this matter:
“If everybody opposes nuclear waste, what are we going to do with the waste that already exists now? We should not have created what nobody wanted. It is important to recognize that people don’t want nuclear waste.” (Baku Nishio. What are we going to do? Radioactive waste. Ryokufu Shuppan Inc., 2005)
“What will happen if no one accepts nuclear waste? NIMBY (not in my backyard) ends up with NIABY (not in anyone’s backyard). “We cannot build a final disposal facility” means “we have chosen not to build a final disposal facility”. But some will claim that we have no choice other than to build a repository. Even if all Japanese citizens were to say “No”, the high-level radioactive waste disposal facility has to be built somewhere. Some think that the only way the government will be able to construct a disposal facility will be for them to use an executive order in order to forcefully bring it into existence.. [...] But let’s think again. Do we really need to build such a thing that would cause conflict between the government and local residents? Nobody desires a society in which the government invokes its state power. Even if the government were to go through rational and democratic procedures in order to construct a repository, in reality no one desires it in their backyard. In the end, wouldn’t it be a better choice to abandon the construction of such a repository? The challenge for the Japanese people is to create a society that does not require a disposal facility. (Shuji Shimizu, NIMBY syndrome, Tokyo Newspaper Publisher)
This issue is further discussed in: Need for fundamental review.
As mentioned above, NUMO has started soliciting for candidate areas for a disposal site. But have they solved the technological challenges involved in the construction of a disposal facility and have they completed a design for a repository?
NUMO is planning to construct a deep geological disposal repository based on the results of the research that has been carried out by the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC). JNC has been carrying out the technological development that is needed for deep geological disposal. The table below is a summary of the pamphlet titled “Learn from the Earth, Gather Humans’ Wisdom” that was published by JNC:
Is there any stratum suitable for geological disposal in Japan?
Is there technology that allows us to carry out geological disposal?
Is geological disposal safe?
|It will soon be possible to find stable strata suitable for geological disposal which requires areas that will have little affect from volcanic and fault activities for at least next 100,000 years.||The current technology has shown that it is possible to create artificial barriers, to design, construct, and operate disposal facilities, and to manage quality control.||Scenarios after geological disposal takes place have been simulated. By verifying each phenomenon that forms the scenario in laboratories, computers can analyze various scenarios. The result shows that geological disposal will not have any impact on living space at any point of time after disposal.|
Cited and edited from the JNC’s pamphlet “Learn from the Earth, Gather Humans’ Wisdom”
On the other hand, the Geological Disposal Issue Research Group states in their criticism titled “Technological Reliability of High-level Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal”:
※ There may be areas that will not largely be affected by earthquakes next 100,000 years. However, a repository requires an extremely safe site. The likelihood of finding such areas within the Japanese archipelago is very remote.
※ The endurance tests of metal containers and buffer materials have not been long enough to verify their lifespan. There are a number of uncertainties regarding their long-term performance.
Also, Kazumi Doi points out as below in his We want to know: Radioactive Waste (The Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun Ltd, 1993):
“Specialists in various fields such as earth science have been discussing risks of radioactive waste escaping into the environment after being secreted within the lithosphere. While opinions vary widely, everyone has agreed that ground water poses the greatest threat to isolating radioactive waste.” “[…] Topography with no groundwater provides the most desirable conditions for keeping vitrified waste and its containers undamaged or eroded so that radioactive materials will not leach out. Groundwater free geology however, rarely exists on the earth; and especially in Japan, it is not possible to find such a place.” “Bore holes and survey tunnels are the present technology used to investigate the conditions within the lithosphere. However, these methods create new groundwater passages; therefore, their use should be limited when building a repository.”
In terms of groundwater, the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) claims: “groundwater does not penetrate easily into deep strata”, “groundwater in a deep stratum has a character that does not allow it to dissolve substances easily”, “it takes a very long time for materials to be transported by groundwater”. In a disposal facility, a number of tunnels will be dug and vitrified waste will continue to emit heat. It is questionable whether JNC’s claims are even relevant in such conditions.
Moreover, Kazumi Doi (1993) states: “[The Nikkan Kogyo Shunbun] when we plan to isolate radioactive waste in the lithosphere, deep underground, we need to create scenarios, each being premised on the natural conditions of a given place. Therefore, we cannot discuss deep geological disposal as if one scenario fits all possible conditions. A number of studies that are being carried out today are premised on earth science. They explore only a single case, but limitless possible cases exist.” Humanity is inexperienced in geological disposal. As we are discussing a timescale spanning at least 100,000 years, we cannot claim to have established a scenario that describes what will happen to radioactive waste after disposal takes place. We are unable even to find a disposal site. It is appropriate to say a full-dress investigation will start only after candidate areas for a disposal site are selected. (Note: the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development
The following diagram shows how spent fuel is processed.
As shown in the diagram above, there are plans to geologically dispose of 40,000 containers of vitrified waste. This figure rests on the premise that “spent fuel currently stored as fuel rods” and “spent fuel produced through future electricity generation” will be reprocessed and vitrified. The plan is to dispose of existing vitrified waste, spent fuel currently being stored as fuel rods (it will be reprocessed to be vitrified), and spent fuel produced through future electricity generation (it will need to be reprocessed if it is to be vitrified) together in a deep repository.
Everyone admits that the existing vitrified waste must be disposed of or stored in some way. However, it is still debatable whether or not reprocessing is necessary and whether we should continue to create spent fuel.
In autumn 2004, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) established a New Nuclear Policy Planning Council and reexamined their decision to reprocess spent fuel. JAEC decided to keep their original policy: reprocessing of all spent fuel. JAEC reported in their “Intermediate report for the nuclear fuel cycle policy” that they presumed there would be four basic scenarios and evaluated them thoroughly from ten viewpoints.
|Scenario 1||Spent fuel is reprocessed after being stored for an adequate time. (Spent fuel is initially stored at an intermediate storage area and is reprocessed, before being disposed of in a repository in the form of vitrified waste. This is JAEC’s current policy).|
|Scenario 2||Part of the spent fuel is reprocessed. The rest of spent fuel that is beyond the capacity of the reprocessing plant undergoes direct disposal.|
|Scenario 3||Spent fuel is directly disposed. (Spent fuel is buried as fuel rods without being processed.)|
|Scenario 4||Spent fuel is stored temporarily and the decision whether to reprocess or directly dispose of it will be made in the future.|
|Viewpoints||1. Security 2. Energy security 3. Environmental suitability 4. Economic efficiency 5. Nuclear non proliferation 6. Technological capability/operability 7. Social acceptability 8. Alternative choices 9. Challenges to policy changes 10. Current trends in other countries|
The New Nuclear Policy Planning Council’s technical evaluation Scenario 1 is as follows: “There is no particular technological challenge that makes Scenario 1’s implementation impossible, although we still need to improve economical efficiency and continue research and development for realizing the practical use of the fast breeder reactor cycle”. However, the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho has not yet been completed and its start-up has been postponed many times and is yet to be decided. Is it right for JAEC to claim “there is no particular technical challenge in implementation”? The rest of the world has given up on fast breeder reactors because of the technical difficulties involved. The following technical evaluation of Scenario 1 would be more appropriate at the present stage: “Reprocessing plant operation is still unforeseeable and it is impossible to predict when the practical use of the fast breeder reactor cycle will be realized”.
As for environmental suitability, JAEC claims that in Scenario 1: “Reprocessing aims at recycling resources and reducing waste. The activity of reprocessing limits the use of resources and waste production; therefore, it realizes the philosophy of a circulative society which encourages recycling”. However, they do not mention that there are no fast breeder reactors operating at present that can utilize plutonium. If the recovered plutonium does not get used then the plutonium ‘resource’ becomes ‘waste’. (Regular reactors can use MOX fuel which is a mixture of plutonium and uranium, however, even if MOX fuel is manufactured only a small amount of the available plutonium will be used, once again leaving Japan with a ‘wasted’ ‘resource’, If this is the case, the evaluation of the environmental suitability for Scenario 1 would be more like this: “Using resources and energy to recover unusable waste plutonium and polluting the environment in the process do not match with the philosophies of a recycling society.”
JAEC’s New Nuclear Policy Planning Council gives the following reasons for continuing with the reprocessing policy: 1. The reprocessing policy excels in energy security, environmental suitability, and coping with future uncertainty in comparison with the direct disposal policy; 2. The nuclear fuel cycle project has been taking place for a long time and it is an asset to society; therefore, reprocessing commands a high value and it should be retained; 3. If the policy changes from reprocessing to direct disposal, the reprocessing plant site’s inhabitants may lose trust in the government, which may result in spent fuel from nuclear power plants being obstructed by protesters and power plants will have to stop operating one after another. Also, finding an intermediate storage site and a final disposal site will be even more difficult than it is now.
The doubts about JAEC’s first reason for keeping the reprocessing policy have been mentioned earlier. As for reason 2, it is understandable that they do not want to waste the efforts and investments they have made for the nuclear fuel cycle project; however, there is no technological guarantee that retaining the reprocessing policy will not be wasteful. In actuality it is likely that the reprocessing policy will be more wasteful. As for reason 3, it can be interpreted to mean that they want to avoid any trouble for the time being. But continuing reprocessing means vitrified waste will continue to accumulate and that may make it more difficult to find a final disposal site. What it amounts to is this: JAEC did not evaluate these scenarios thoroughly from all ten viewpoints. To avoid problems that may occur when policy changes, they overemphasized Viewpoint 9 (Challenges to policy changes) while they played down Viewpoint 3 (Environmental suitability) and 6 (Technological capability).
Sei Yoshioka criticized the New Nuclear Policy Planning Council, of which he is a member, with the following statement:
“People often say, ‘The New Nuclear Policy Planning Council’s argument does not make sense.’ I agree with them. The argument does not make sense because their reasoning is based on ‘imaginary science’. The council debates fictitious stories as if they are real. On the other hand, they neglect the real issues or deal them as minor or solvable. Their policy emphasizes fantasy and neglects reality.”
As can be seen, there is disagreement even within members of the New Nuclear Policy Planning Council as to whether fast breeder reactors can be realized or whether reprocessing is needed. It is doubtful their conclusions are based on the accurate perception of the present realities or if their conclusions reflect the opinions of the citizens.
So far the only subject that has been discussed by the council is whether reprocessing should be conducted upon disposal. However, they are not even considering an option that many scientists believe deserves discussion; not re-processing the fuel but storing it after use in long term storage facilities as described in the following section.
※ Nuclear waste needs to be stored for a long time, a time longer than we can imagine. We should not do what we can’t say will be absolutely safe. That means, we should not bury nuclear waste in the stratum. Spent fuel should be kept in steel containers and stored in buildings above ground. We cannot be responsible for long periods of time, but at least we should be responsible for the present by keeping the waste where we can see it. At this point, the best thing we can do is to build a storage facility on the ground and maintain the waste for at least 50 years to 100 years, or even longer, until our science develops. We are not even sure if science will develop enough to solve the nuclear waste problem. But at least, building storage facilities above-ground is the safest thing we can do with our present scientific knowledge. (Hiroaki Koide, Assistant for Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, “Extract from symposium on ‘Energy: the reality surrounding nuclear power’, Kyoto Health Insurance Medical Practitioners’ Newspaper”, 10 July, 2004)
※ Whether above-ground or in shallow ground, it is less burdensome and more sound to store nuclear waste in a form we can manage and retrieve easily. Some people insist on deep geological disposal, saying that above-ground storage can be dangerous during a natural disaster or if a airplane crash occurs. But then what do they think of the risks existing nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel cycle facilities currently carry? (Baku Nishio, Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) joint representative, What are we going to do? Radioactive waste, Ryokufu Shuppan Inc., 2005)
※ I am in favor of simple above-ground storage facilities rather than underground disposal. With spent fuel stored in such a way we can keep watch over it and we can deal with something like a leakage should one occur. In an above-ground facility it is easier to deal with nuclear waste when circumstances change in the future. Moreover, an above-ground facility will be cheaper than deep geological disposal. (Toshikazu Shibata, former chief executive of Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, The Nuclear Reactor New Introduction, Energy Forum, 2005)
JAEC did not discuss another issue mentioned earlier: whether we should continue to produce spent fuel. Because in their view “nuclear power is necessary”.
Japan’s nuclear policy is based on this logic: “Nuclear power generation is necessary” ➝ “Reprocessing of spent fuel is necessary in order to continue nuclear power generation even after uranium resources run out” ➝ “Waste fission products separated by reprocessing will be vitrified” ➝ We need a deep geological disposal facility for vitrified waste”. However, does the major premise “nuclear power generation is necessary” really have no room for further debate?
Don’t we have alternatives to nuclear power? Do we really need to choose technology that creates waste nobody wants to be in charge of? Are we using nuclear power generation presuming that we are actually responsible for the waste issue? As this website shows, nuclear power generation has many problems other than hard to deal with waste products. Nevertheless, do we still need nuclear power in order to supply our electricity? We desire a “wealthy life”. What kind of life will nuclear power give us?
NUMO’s pamphlet says, “NUMO will proceed with the implementation of a final disposal project, achieving the understanding of residents in the local community”. To achieve the understanding of the public, firstly they need to have room for discussion. In order to discuss high-level radioactive waste disposal issues, we need to go back to the starting point and discuss thoroughly whether nuclear power generation is necessary.
Although no municipalities have officially volunteered to be candidate sites for a final repository, some municipals have asked NUMO to explain its high-level radioactive waste disposal program.
For example, on the 22nd June 2006 NUMO held a meeting with the Village Council in Uken Village, Kagoshima prefecture, to explain NUMO’s final disposal project. Saburo Motoyama, the mayor of Uken Village, said, “Our purpose is to receive the subsidy that is given when a tentative invitation for a final repository is made. This is one of the options we can use to increase our town budget” (cited from the Asahi Newspaper, 21 September, 2006). In contrast to his statement, Mr. Ito, the mayor of Kagoshima prefecture, said at a press conference, “[…] Kagoshima prefecture is not going to build a high-level radioactive waste storage in the neighboring areas of the Amami Islands or the Uji Islands at least for the time being […]”. In response to a question from the press about Japan’s policy for deep geological disposal, Mayor Ito said, “[…] I am of the impression that our technology has a long way to go before we can construct a deep geological disposal facility” (cited from Kagoshima prefecture’s website).
Mr. Hatano, the mayor of Yogo Town, Shiga prefecture, said at a town council meeting on 8 August 2006, “I want to reconsider our volunteering to be a candidate location for a high-level radioactive waste final disposal site”. Yogo Town had discussed volunteering to be a site of a final disposal facility during the previous year, although Shiga prefecture did not agree with it because “Shiga prefecture has Lake Biwa, a source of drinking water for the Kinki area” (cited from Asahi Newspaper, 31 August).
In August 2006, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission published a report titled “Strategic Promotion of Nuclear Energy Research and Development Activities”. The report proposes “expanding subsidies to support the promotion of potential candidate areas in order to locate a final repository for high-level radioactive waste and other nuclear facilities. It also wishes to enhance local industrial activities” as a way to “step up the promotion of a final repository for high-level radioactive waste, so as to secure a suitable site”.
Has the Atomic Energy Commission not learnt from their previous failures in finding candidate sites? What did they think of what the mayor of Shiga prefecture said? The Atomic Energy Commission’s report expects that “if we grant subsidies to prefectures as well as municipalities, prefectures will accept a final repository.” The reason why the mayor of Shiga and Kagoshima opposed the proposal was not because “the money was not enough” but because “they think the current plan for nuclear waste disposal is neither appropriate nor safe enough to convince the people of their prefectures”. It is obvious why no local government has officially volunteered to be a candidate area; no one can trust the current nuclear waste disposal project plan. What the Atomic Energy Commission needs is to “review the project plan”. Nevertheless, instead of reviewing the nuclear waste disposal project plan, they are keeping on with the current plan and increasing subsidies, hoping that a bankrupted municipal/prefecture will volunteer to be a candidate area. They will be happy as long as a candidate area is secured by their plan. But with this plan, the government will never obtain the understanding of the people in Japan, and the opposition of local residents against their towns becoming candidate areas will continue.
Fig.1 The Role of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) (Made from NUMO’s pamphlet “Safe Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste”)
Fig.2 Image of Underground Disposal Facilities (from NUMO’s website)
Fig.3 Image of a Disposal Tunnel (a section where vitrified high-level radioactive waste is buried) (from NUMO’s website)
Fig.4 Vitrified Waste/Overpack/Buffer
Fig. 5 Important Conditions of the Natural Phenomena and Geological Environment for Deep Geological Disposal (from the pamphlet “TALK” by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy)
「原子力発電で本当に私たちが知りたい１２０の基礎知識」広瀬隆・藤田裕幸・共著 東京書籍 ２０００
「ニンビイシンドローム考 迷惑施設の政治と経済」清水修二・著 東京新聞出版局 １９９９
「どうする？放射能ごみ」西尾漠・著 緑風出版 ２００５
「そこが知りたい放射性廃棄物」土井 和巳・著 日刊工業新聞社 １９９３
「新原子炉お節介学入門」柴田 俊一・著 エネルギーフォーラム ２００５
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「高レベル放射性廃棄物の処分について」経済産業省 資源エネルギー庁 ２００３．５
「わが国における高レベル放射性廃棄物地層処分の技術的信頼性?地層処分研究開発 第２次取りまとめー 概要」核燃料サイクル開発機構 ２００２．１１
「『高レベル放射性廃棄物 地層処分の技術的信頼性』批判」地層処分問題研究グループ ２０００．７
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「京都保険医新聞 �エネルギー・原発を取り巻く現実�を考えるシンポジウム 抄録集」 ２００４
「TALK. 考えよう、放射性廃棄物のこと。」経済産業省資源エネルギー庁 ２００６．３